A writer, poet, and woman of faith, Luci Shaw imparts her wisdom from years of experience of being a creative being, of exploring how faith and art connect. Breath for the Bones is an intricately woven piece including words from Shaw’s essays, journal entries, poems, other works, and quotes from Shaw’s favorite artists. Her main focus is writing, so many of her examples and illustrations are tied to writing, and the writing specifically poetry. Shaw takes the reader through her thought process of why people (especially those of faith) should do art and how best to posture the mind and the heart in the process.
God is creative. This is the main point of the whole book. Because God is creative, and we, His creation, are made in his image, we should exert our creativity, too, whether it is writing, or speaking, or painting, or making music, etc. According to Shaw, artists are called to find connection between heaven and earth, because man was made for both. Artists are a type of prophet, calling to humanity to return to God and to remember his faithfulness.
Beauty is valuable and important. God made the universe beautiful. He could have simply made things functional, but he chose to give us color in sunsets, and fragrance in flowers, and an incredible array of animals, and a rich diversity in people. Why else would he create thus if it weren’t for beauty? God also delights in helping us foster our creativity, for his glory. Shaw gives the example of the decorating of the Tabernacle; God fills Bezalel with his Spirit to make blue pomegranates and to cut and set gemstones, and woodcarvings. Even in his own dwelling God wanted art to be displayed for his glory. Shaw remarks on the lack of art in the Church today, and presents a vision for art and the Church saying, “I would love to see art and beauty embraced and acknowledged and not simply viewed as peripheral nor as one option among many.” And later, “if we come at it with as sense of creating sacred space that is appealing and worshipful, that glorifies and enriches the hearts of the people who gather there, I believe we please the heart of God” (Shaw, 32-33).
We think in pictures, so we should write in pictures. God speaks through pictures, through his creation and in his word to tell us about him. Jesus taught with pictures, with metaphors to illustrate truth about himself and about the Kingdom. The bread, the light, the way, the lion, the perfect lamb, the vine, the water. Good writing cannot be generalized, but should be specifically tied to concrete images and details.
We love stories, so tell them. “The Bible doesn’t teach theology systematically,” writes Shaw. “It tells stories” (Shaw, 62). Story is the most familiar and natural way for humans to learn and take meaning in. Do not be afraid to tell stories, but delight in them, as they reorder the chaos and offer new insight.
The imagination is a prized gift, a muscle that must be exercised and grown. It is the faculty that allows us to see the images and live the stories. Shaw bemoans a common societal problem: tunnel vision. Because life is so complex and we do not make the effort to imagine it all, we each live in our own little worlds, doing our “own little thing” (Shaw, 67). We need creative Christians with “baptized imaginations” to help us be able to focus see meaning (Shaw, 68).
Inspiration comes from the divine Muse, the Holy Spirit. Wait. Listen. Shaw exhorts the creative being to wait for the Muse. It is in this waiting that the artist receives inspiration from outside herself, that the Muse works mysteriously and discreetly. And in this way, faith and art affect each other. “It is hard to imagine an artist who is totally unspiritual in the sense of being out of touch with both created and unseen worlds. And it is hard to imagine a person full of Spirit who is not in some way creative, innovating, world disturbing” (Shaw, 78).
The Creative Process
Creativity is a process. Write in a journal. Thoughts, seminal ideas will be kept safe for later reflection and development if a journal is kept. Being creative requires risk. We must trust that Muse will not blow us into dangerous waters, but he might take us to places we never would have gone, had we not let go. Pay attention! Shaw reemphasizes this again and again. How can we ever find connections between heaven and earth, and how can we ever use what we create to point to God if we do not pay attention? Cultivate creativity. “Art takes time to warm up” (Shaw, 131). Wait, because “neither art nor spirituality is a convenience, nor do they call to us at convenient times” (Shaw, 133). Though we may want to put creativity in a clearly labeled box, there is mystery in it, and it does not derive from us originally, so we cannot box and label it. We cannot be completely fulfilled in it either, but “our lack of fulfillment is the most precious gift we have. It is the source of our passion, our creativity, our search for God” (Shaw, 152). Creativity is much like faith in Shaw’s eyes, because we have “glimpses of knowing” of things not yet seen.
A Personal Evaluation
Though the book is a compilation of works from different times in Luci Shaw’s life, it would never seem so by the fluidity of thought laced through the book. This is a timeless piece offering insight from a writer that has lived though great joy and great suffering, both in life and in her writing. One aspect of her theology might be somewhat askew, but given the context of her argument, it is not surprising that she holds that being “in the business of God” is being who God made one to be.
For some churches, if you’re not actively evangelizing, “saving souls,” you’re not in the business of God. To me, the business of God is to be as fully human as God programmed us to be. And that includes the creative impulse, the impulse toward beauty as well as the witness of a life lived well (Shaw 31).
Though taken out of context this sounds almost hedonistic, Shaw is trying to show that through being the creative person that God made one to be, one is evangelizing. God made each of us for a specific purpose, and to fulfill that purpose is to give testimony to the greatness of God.
Breath for the Bones is certainly an encouragement to those (especially writers) who feel muddled in their purpose for being creative. The book includes a chapter at the end and a host of resources for developing one’s writing, especially poetry since that is her main focus.
The “treasured books” list I continually update just received a new member. My creative spirit was challenged as I read about keeping a journal and waiting for the Muse to move. Luci Shaw’s insight has reached corners of my heart that have held questions about the purpose of creativity. I have had a very dry spell in my creative ambition, and I have not known why and simply attributed it to busyness. But by reading Shaw’s wisdom about writing, I have identified a reluctance to produce anything that is not perfect. That is why I do not journal, because journaling is raw, and unfinished; it is possible that whatever seeds are scattered in a journal entry may never grow and develop. And so I haven’t written. I want finality and perfection. But I understand now that the only way to have good ideas for a project, or to develop a longing to write, is to write. No matter how primitive the idea, or how seminal the thought, write it. Another principle that I have known in the corners of my mind, but have not listened to is “Wait.” When I paint or write, I do not have patience to wait for the Muse, to wait for the best idea, to wait for the right word. But waiting is not only to achieve the end result of the perfect word or the finest idea; it is a process that grows the imagination, that steadies the soul.
In her wisdom, Luci Shaw has written a exploration of the creative faculty, not dissecting it, but offering the honesty and rapture of her own experience. Shaw shows readers that they were made to be creative and they were meant to enjoy the freedom of creating because it glorifies God. Our hearts should rest in a posture of expectancy for how the Muse will move us, and a willingness to create because we are called to, and a joy in the fulfillment of that purpose.